The Important Debates – Four Years Later

Streets of Oslo following 22 July 2011. Photo: Jørgen Carling, PRIO

Four years have passed since the biggest terror attacks on Norwegian soil during peacetime. Once again we are solemnly commemorating the dead and expressing our solidarity. The debate about the potential uses of the actual sites that were affected is also very much alive and continuing. But are there other debates that we also need to have?

Our research for the NECORE project focuses on discourses, negotiations, identity and resilience in Norwegian society after the terror attacks of 22 July 2011. In our research, we consider among other things the four important debates described below – and different ways of approaching them.

Firstly: In the wake of 22 July 2011, there has been a great deal of debate about Norway’s emergency preparedness. Factors that have received increasing attention include local knowledge, networks and the use of social media in times of crisis. On the basis of research conducted by Mareile Kaufmann, a member of our project team, we have identified a need for more debate on digital technology, which is developing at record speed. It is not enough to say that “technology is the solution”, and then ensure that systems used by institutions such as the police are up-to-date. We must also become more aware of the consequences of technology. New digital technologies are contributing to dramatic changes in how we communicate and find information. In crisis situations this has enormous consequences with both practical and ethical implications. This debate not only concerns the reliability of information and rapid, safe preparedness, but also privacy and the possibility that sensitive information may move into the public sphere. We all want a resilient society that is able to deal effectively with crises. But today this resilience is based largely on rapidly developing technologies, with practical and social implications about which we currently have little knowledge.

Secondly: How do we tackle, as individuals and as a society, the hate and anger that such an event brings out into the public sphere? Obviously this has to do with anger directed against the perpetrator, but also with all the harsh opinions and rhetoric that come to the surface. Fortunately, there is broad agreement in political circles (if to a somewhat lesser extent among the general population) that we should preserve a broad freedom of expression, also as far as hate speech is concerned. This freedom of expression must be subject to very few reservations. In other words, we must not say, “Yes, of course we’re in favour of freedom of expression, but some opinions should not be allowed”. Nontheless, we must keep track of hate speech and take it seriously. Such rhetoric must be countered with mature, considered and educated opinions. And we need to preserve formal and informal ethical rules – both in institutions (such as the press) and in the unregulated media (such as the Internet) – for dealing with extremely offensive and dangerous rhetoric. In this context, defenders of freedom of expression have reacted strongly to calls to practise “ytringsansvar”, “responsibility of expression”. This reaction is understandable if one fears that “responsibility of expression” will lead to tighter moralistic limitations on the freedom of expression, subject to monitoring by “ethical overlords”. But there can be no doubt that rhetoric has consequences, and that it can be used to spread the types of attitudes and opinions that motivated Anders Behring Breivik. A key objective for our project is to research how we as a society can foster a debate that truly addresses this challenge, without it becoming a debate that is either for or against the freedom of expression.

Thirdly: In the wake of 22 July 2011, there was a far-reaching self-critical debate within Norway about the conduct of Norwegian institutions. But it took time: It was not really until the report of the Gjørv Commission was published that a comprehensive debate about whether Norwegian institutions and emergency preparedness protocols had functioned in the crisis, really happened. Many people still think that we are unwilling to discuss these problems with the necessary depth. National solidarity was of course important after the terror attacks, and with this came a need to shield ourselves from self-criticism. But should we ask, with the benefit of hindsight, whether Norwegian society more generally lacks the will and ability to conduct balanced, constructive and reflective self-criticism when this becomes necessary? In the NECORE project, we are examining this question from several angles, in collaboration with media and ethics researchers from UCLA, the University of Oslo and the University of Agder.

Finally: Much of what is described above deals with what our research team calls “negotiations”. Our research so far shows that many people feel marginalized in the climate of Norwegian public discourse following 22 July 2011. They are not allowed to participate in the “negotiating process”. That is not least true, when the topic is integration and diversity. Some find it more difficult to highlight the positive aspects of diversity and immigration, and feel that some extremist far-right views have gained more exposure than before, rather than less, in the wake of 22 July 2011. In our project team, Rojan Ezzati and Marta Erdal are examining questions about identity and diversity in Norwegian society. An identity is not necessarily something that is set in stone, but is often something that evolves through processes of “negotiation”. How can we make all these negotiations and conversations – about emergency preparedness, rhetoric, self-criticism, diversity and identity – open, honest and at the same time truly inclusive?

For some, 22 July 2011 has started to recede into the past. For others, the events are still very close. For all of us it is important that we allow the events to become the starting point for discussions about how we as a society can both prevent, and move on from, the type of crises represented by that fateful day in 2011.

  • The NECORE project addresses a wide range of questions related to resilience and identity formation, seen in light of – and in the wake of – the terror attacks in Oslo and on Utøya on 22 July 2011.

  • This text was published in Norwegian in the daily newspaper VG 22 July 2015.
  • Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext
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